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NATO's Next Move

A Conversation with Jens Stoltenberg

Jens Stoltenberg

  • Country: Norway
  • Title: NATO Secretary General
  • Education: University of Oslo
  • Known For: Leading Norway as Prime Minister during the 2011 Oslo terror attacks
  • Website: NATO Biography

After serving as Norway’s prime minister from 2005 to 2013, Jens Stoltenberg took over as the 13th Secretary General of NATO this past March. As his tenure began, Russia was still fomenting unrest in Ukraine and the Islamic State (also called ISIS) was wreaking havoc in Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, a revolution in cyberwarfare and other emerging threats challenged the alliance and its partners. In other words, Stoltenberg’s plate was full from the start, but he has also pledged to modernize NATO and how it responds to threats. In April, he spoke with Foreign Affairs Deputy Web Editor Brian O’Connor in Washington.

How has the challenge of dealing with the Ukraine crisis affected your time on the job so far? It has framed my time as secretary general. Because the annexation of Crimea, the Russian violation of international law, and the Russian support for the separatists and destabilization of Eastern Ukraine has been at the top of our agenda, of course. My responsibility has been to make sure that NATO responds to this behavior. And we are responding. We are now implementing the biggest increase in our collective defense since the end of the Cold War. We are doubling the size of the NATO response force. We are making it more ready and more prepared so the lead elements will be able to move within as little as 48 hours. And we are responding by adapting the NATO force structure to what we have seen Russia do in Ukraine.

There have been calls for NATO members to increase their defense spending, but there is still a gap between what has been called for and what is being spent. What is NATO doing to close that gap? NATO has made a strong commitment to stop cuts and to start increasing defense spending, with members moving toward two percent of GDP for defense over the next decade. This is a very strong commitment, and for me, it has been a top priority in all my meetings with governments and parliaments, underlining that we have to deliver. At the least, the cuts have to stop. European members of NATO have reduced their defense spending steadily since 1990. The cuts have to stop, and then spending has to gradually increase. There are some positive signs. There are four NATO members who are at two percent or above—the United States, the United Kingdom, Estonia, and Greece. And there are others that are quite close. Poland, for instance, is expected to reach two percent this year. The Baltic countries, Romania, and others are increasing spending, and Germany just announced that it will also start to increase. But the picture is mixed. Many countries need to do more and I’m urging them to do so.

Has the crisis in Ukraine increased the willingness to spend? That’s obviously the case—the crisis in Ukraine and the more assertive behavior of Russia. Also the crisis within Syria, and the turmoil in Iraq and North Africa. There are threats and challenges emanating from the East, but also from the Middle East and North Africa. Turkey borders Iraq and Syria. Italy and Spain are very close to North Africa. NATO has to respond, has to adapt, and has to invest more in defense.

NATO’s operation in Libya was highly acclaimed, but ultimately did not bring stability to that nation. What actions should NATO take with respect to countries that are fighting ISIS? To fight ISIS and terror more generally, a broad range of tools and a comprehensive approach are required. NATO plays an important role in the fight against ISIS but does so it together with many others. The coalition against ISIS led by the United States is not a NATO operation, but all NATO allies participate in it. And other international organizations like the European Union, as well as individual nations, are also important in handling border control, intelligence cooperation, and so on.

Jens Stoltenberg NATO 1

A British soldier looks on as U.S. military helicopters fly during the "Wind Spring 15" military exercises at Smardan shooting range April 21, 2015. 

NATO has as its core focus protecting all its members—so, for instance, deploying air and missile defense systems in Turkey to augment their defenses. We are working closely on the exchange of information related to foreign fighters returning home who pose a threat to all allies. We are also developing technologies related to better detecting and defending against explosives. But perhaps the most important thing we are doing is working with countries in the region to help them fight terror and stabilize their own countries. We work closely, for instance, with Jordan, an island of stability in the Middle East, on reforming and modernizing its armed forces, training, and capacity building—because if such countries are more stable, we are more secure.

We should not forget that our largest military operation ever, the ISAF operation in Afghanistan and other efforts there, the biggest NATO has ever conducted, were a response to a terrorist attack in the United States. That was the first time NATO invoked Article 5, the collective defense article.

You have said elsewhere that in the future NATO is going to do more intelligence gathering and protection against disruption from atypical actors. How do you see the organization doing that, and against whom do you see it being most effective? Given the nature of intelligence it’s hard to go into all the details publicly, but I can say that intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance are key to understanding the new security environment, having better situational awareness, being able to provide more warning time, and increasing our ability to have the right forces in the right place at the right time.

The sort of hybrid warfare we have seen in Ukraine, for instance, involves deception, the use of both military and nonmilitary means, and both covert and overt operations. In that context, intelligence becomes more important than ever. And in the Middle East and North Africa, it’s also crucial. We are going to deploy Global Hawk NATO drones—surveillance drones. We are in the process of developing a new allied ground surveillance system and the plan is to be able to deploy them within 2017, at the Sigonella Base in Italy.

Where do you see NATO drones being most useful? They are useful in almost all theaters, in addressing many different threats and challenges. Having good real-time information is becoming more and more important.

Considering some of the controversies the United States has faced with its use of drones, will NATO do anything differently?These are surveillance drones, and I think that most of the debate has been related to not surveillance drones but drones used as weapons. All weapons should, of course, be used in line with international law.

Is there any diplomatic dialogue going on that you could speak of between Russia and NATO? We in NATO decided in April 2014 to suspend practical cooperation with Russia, but to maintain open channels for political contact, and there is some of that. But the challenge is that even if channels for political dialogue are open, Russian behavior has to change. As long as Russia is violating international laws, supporting the separatists, sending in forces and heavy equipment, and annexing Crimea, then that’s the real problem.

Do you see any change on that front happening in the near future? I will not speculate. We have seen a pattern where Russia has used force in Moldova, Georgia, Crimea, and Eastern Ukraine. It is trying to reestablish a system of spheres of influence, which contradicts the whole idea of having a Europe whole, free, and at peace, a Europe where we respect the independence and territorial integrity of all nations.

Do you think NATO’s expansion has contributed to the problem? NATO enlargement is the result of exercise of free will by independent democratic nations—nations where the peoples and the governments strongly wished to become NATO members, and were invited to join. No one has ever been forced into NATO. They have been knocking at the door and we have welcomed them in. We should respect every nation’s right to decide its own path. Whether a country joins NATO is really a question to be decided in the dialogue between the aspirant and NATO. Russia has no right to intervene or try to hinder that from happening.

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Crew from US navy aboard at USS Viksburg participating in NATO's Dynamic Mongoose anti-submarine exercise in the North Sea off the coast of Norway, May 4, 2015.

Do you see cooperation between NATO and Russia being possible? Can it be something other than a zero-sum relationship? Absolutely. My experience as a politician through the ’80s, ’90s, and up until now, is that international relations can very often be not zero-sum but win-win. For several years after the Cold War, Russia was a winner together with us. We expanded economic cooperation and trade. We established a G8 with Russia; it was invited into the World Trade Organization. We established a NATO–Russia Council. And in Norway, I have seen how we have managed a very pragmatic and concerted working relationship with Russia on energy, fisheries, borders, and military issues. This has been good for Russia, and it has been good for us.

But this kind of cooperation has to be based on respect for some fundamental values and rules, and one of those is that you respect the borders and integrity of your neighbors. The challenge has been that Russia has not respected borders and not respected the integrity of its neighbors. That undermines completely the trust which we need to have a cooperative relationship.

Russia has a choice. It can either continue on the path of confrontation and thereby become more isolated, or it can go back to the path of cooperation, which will benefit both Russia and NATO. It’s up to them to decide. We are ready to cooperate, but we are also prepared for the long haul and to stand against them as long as they are on the path of confrontation.

What would standing against Russia look like, if it won’t change course? It looks like what we are doing now. We are at the beginning of a fundamental transformation and adaptation of NATO. We have increased preparedness and readiness of forces, doubled the size of the NATO response force, developed a whole readiness action plan, increased the presence of NATO forces in the eastern part of Europe, and established six command-and-control units in the Baltic countries.

A lot has already been done, but more is going to follow. For 40 years, the main focus of NATO was collective defense in Europe, and we provided deterrence without firing a shot. Then, after the end of the Cold War, our focus turned “out of area,” to crisis management in the Balkans, Kosovo, Bosnia–Herzegovina, Afghanistan, Libya, and fighting piracy off the Horn of Africa. Now, we are in a way turning our attention back home, back to Europe, back to collective defense. But we cannot stop the out-of-area crisis management.

So the fundamental change is that NATO, for the first time in its history, has to do both collective defense and crisis management at the same time. And we have to do that together with our partners in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.

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